Even with seasonal vaccines, there are still an estimated 290,000 to 650,000 deaths globally due to influenza infections according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Epidemiologists predict that there will be more potential for viral pandemics in the future, including new strains of influenza that do not yet have vaccines. The Collaborative Influenza Vaccine Innovation Centers (CIVICs) Network conducts research focused on developing more durable, broadly protective, and longer-lasting l influenza vaccines, working towards a ‘universal vaccine.’ A recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) article published in February highlighted work by all researchers towards a universal influenza vaccine and included four CIVICs investigators.
CIVICs Researchers Highlighted In PNAS Article
Postdoctoral fellow at University of Chicago and incoming assistant professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus Sinai-Emory Multi-Institutional CIVIC (SEM CIVIC)
Present Influenza Vaccines:
Current flu vaccines in the United States are quadrivalent, meaning the vaccine includes two influenza A and two influenza B strains, which are predicted months in advance to be the strains that will drive infections during ‘flu season’. Historically, influenza vaccines use inactivated or weakened influenza viruses requiring high doses to elicit a sufficient immune response. The current approach to influenza vaccination can result in limitations to vaccine effectiveness because, for example, it can be difficult to predict exactly which strains will be active during flu season.
New Influenza Vaccine Targets:
Influenza vaccines are usually specific for certain influenza strains and are developed to target specific surface proteins unique to that strain. Historically, this approach to vaccination has been taken because strain–specific vaccines are the most effective, that is they have the strongest immune response. Recently, researchers have begun to explore new surface protein targets that are the same across multiple strains, meaning a vaccine can target multiple influenza strains simultaneously. While in the past, such targets have not resulted in a strong immune response, the newly discovered targets are showing promise with both a strong immune response and efficacy across multiple influenza strains.
New Vaccine Platform Technology:
Current flu vaccines use inactivated or weakened influenza viruses, which then requires high doses of the vaccine to be effective. Researchers are also exploring alternative ways to formulate new vaccines to increase vaccine efficacy, including using viral vector technologies, similar to the technology used to make some of the COVID-19 vaccines. One ongoing project is to use an empty viral capsid that contains synthetic influenza DNA, anticipating a more similar immune response to viral infections, resulting in stronger immune responses and longer lasting protection.
What Is Next?
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates the effectiveness of seasonal influenza vaccine ranges between 10% and 60%, so there is room to improve influenza vaccines. The CIVICs Network is propelling influenza vaccine research forward, and currently has two vaccine candidates in clinical trials. To stay up to date with the research from CIVICs investigators, visit us at niaidcivics.org.